A Spoiler-Free Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood Review: A Sickly-Sweet Layer Cake Of Nostalgia
The last decade or so of films have taught us that narrative is everything.
The MCU showed us just how complex and intricately woven a film franchise can be, while even Quentin Tarantino's more recent works, from The Hateful Eight to Django Unchained, showed us that you can borrow from just about any moviemaking style as long as you have a story punchy enough to carry it through. Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood, for the first time, is a complete subversion of that.
Very early on in Once Upon a Time... it becomes clear that in telling the story of Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, Tarantino intended from the outset to spend far more time behind the camera than he did with the pen in his hand. The start of the film is, and we can't emphasise this enough: slow.
Tarantino himself told us that this film is his 'love letter to Hollywood,' and that much is clear. “I’ve kind of spent my whole life researching it,” he told us last month in our cover story with Brad Pitt. “I’ve spent my whole life knowing this world. So now I can finally do something with everything that I’ve been filling my brain with for the last 56 years.”
It must have been a hugely cathartic experience making it, but it's also a love letter to everything Tarantino perceived to be great about the experience of living in Hollywood at that time.
The story is poignantly, almost jarringly simple, and purposely open ended. Its broad-sweeping, interconnected nature, in which Leo DiCaprio's washed-up western star Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), will probably draw the closest comparisons to Pulp Fiction than anything Tarantino has made since his career-making crime epic — but it's nowhere near as tightly wound.
Instead, Tarantino spends the first hour of the film painting a romanticised picture of Hollywood — from the western films that were so popular at the time to a painstaking recreation of '69 era Hollywood Boulevard —and its most prominent figures, from Steve McQueen to Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate, none of whom end up having any real narrative impact on the film as it goes along.
It also soon becomes apparent that Once Upon a Time is a chance for Tarantino to revisit, and potentially put his spin on, the films that he grew up watching as a kid. The viewer spends a lot of time in the same sense of suspended animation as the people who would have watched the shows popular at the time, and the Western scenes that we see acted out by Dalton are actually as painstakingly recreated as anything in the rest of the film.
That's not to say that you won't be entranced by what happens the film's final events kick in to gear, even if some scenes do stretch on a little long.
The scenes in which we're taken through endless tours of Hollywood and its surrounds are mesmerising in their detail and truly awe-inspiring to behold, as are the moments in the film where Tarantino simply wants to showcase what life was like for everyone on Hollywood's many tiers of cultural clout.
Tate, having woken up from a Party at the Playboy Mansion, uses her status as a newly-minted cultural icon to blag free tickets to her own film. Dalton spends his day on the set of a Spaghetti Western, pining for some form of career validation — something he eventually gets from from an 8-year-old child star — and Ricocheting between mental breakdowns. Booth, his once-stuntman who's now been reduced to something of handyman-come-driver, is fixing his roof.
This is all plenty of fun, but many will leave the theatre feeling like Tarantino spent maybe half an hour too long basking in nostalgia, especially with the backdrop of the Manson Family Murders that the film uses to drive the last third of its narrative.
That entire angle, from Cliff's first encounter with a hippie girl (and family member) on the street, to the film's climactic final two scenes, are more than compelling enough to snap you out of the hazy, neon-lit trance that Tarantino spent the 90 minutes lulling you into, but it all feels over a little too soon.
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood feels like Tarantino's attempt to showcase that film is, at its very core, visual art, mostly in that it leaves you to make up your own sense of poignancy. This is fitting, too, because as with other Tarantino films set in the modern era, none of the characters are particular bastions of moral credibility — they're just people trying to get by as best they can in the circumstances they've arrived in.
“I’m not expecting most of the audience to get every name or every reference that I make,” he told us, “but I like movies that take you inside of a world, and then you get to understand that world a little bit more, by the time the movie’s over. They don’t do it by talking down to you, they talk slightly over your head. And over the course of time, you kind of get it."
Kind of get it you will, but probably not totally. Once Upon a Time... is, as Quentin himself says, is an extraordinarily detailed and complex snapshot of an iconic Hollywood era that's soon to receive its final death knell. But, and this is important, primarily a visual snapshot all the same: something not meant to tell a compelling story through a detailed narrative, but a piece of art that you're simply meant to bask in for a couple of hours.
As lovingly rendered and crafted as it is though, you won't feel at all like it's been a waste of time.
Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood hits Australian theatres on August 4.